Year 4, Month 2, Day 3: Of Course. Why Do You Ask?

The San Antonio Express-News (TX) runs a rather grim op-ed from Carolyn Lochhead, who wonders if it’s too late already:

In his inaugural address last week, President Barack Obama made climate change a priority of his second term. It might be too late.

Within the lifetimes of today’s children, scientists say, the climate could reach a state unknown in civilization.

In that time, global carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels are on track to exceed the limits that scientists believe could prevent catastrophic warming. CO2 levels are higher than they have been in 15 million years.

The Arctic, melting rapidly and probably irreversibly, has reached a state that the Vikings would not recognize.

“We are poised right at the edge of some very major changes on Earth,” said Anthony Barnosky, a biology professor at the University of California at Berkeley who studies the interaction of climate change with population growth and land use. “We really are a geological force that’s changing the planet.”

Short answer: yes. Long answer: below. Sent January 27:

If what we’re aiming for is the preservation of the status quo, an Earthly condition in which a largely benign climate supports the continued growth and prosperity of our species, then yes, we’re definitely too late to arrest the consequences of global climate change. It’s barely possible that had we heeded the calls of environmentally conscious leaders like Jimmy Carter back in the 1970s, we would not be facing such a crisis today — but just barely possible. The power and complexity of a planetary fossil-fuel economy is beyond our comprehension, and it’s been growing unchecked for well over a century.

The question is not whether we’re too late to avert catastrophe; we’re not, and it is ironic that our inability to understand the crisis was facilitated by “conservatives” whose fear of social and economic change prevented them from acting in time to avert a tragedy of planetary scope. Humanity’s best hopes now rest with science and communication: in expanding our ability to understand a rapidly transforming climate, and bypassing our wholly-owned politicians to apply these insights to species-wide action.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 6, Day 18: Oh, Not HIM Again!

More on the Barnosky study, from the San Francisco Chronicle:

Barnosky, who tracks longtime changes in the fossil record, and 22 other scientists spent two years in conferences and research to produce their review. It is timed for a U.N. conference on sustainable development – known as the Rio+20 Conference – that is scheduled for Rio de Janeiro from June 22 to 24. The conference will mark 20 years since the first “Earth Summit” at Rio, involving delegates from 172 governments, produced the first international conventions on climate change and biodiversity.

In their report in Nature, the scientists say their research shows many combined factors are thrusting the world toward the tipping point they foresee. Among the problems are these:

— The rapid growth in the world’s human population – to 9 billion or more by 2050 and possibly 27 billion by the end of the century – is quickly consuming available resources.

Fossil fuels are being burned at a rapidly increasing rate, increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 35 percent since the industrial revolution began. At the same time, ocean acidity has risen by 5 percent in the past 20 years.

— Ocean productivity is being diminished by vast “dead zones” where no fish swim, while 40 percent of Earth’s land mass that was once “biodiverse” now contains far fewer species of crop plants and domestic animals.

— More animal species than ever are becoming extinct, and many plant and animal species are being forced by global warming to seek new ranges that could place them at risk of extinction, as well.

— Within the next 60 years, the average global temperature “will be higher than it has been since the human species evolved.”

And look who got the call to be the voice of doubt! Sent June 7:

While the doctrine of false equivalency demands that a nominal “skeptic” be represented in any discussion of the rapidly accelerating greenhouse effect and its consequences for humanity, it’s a measure of climate-change deniers’ desperation that the only climate scientist still available for this role is Dr. Richard Lindzen.

When asked to comment on the study led by Dr. Anthony Barnosky which assembles an impressive (and genuinely terrifying) array of evidence for an imminent climatic “tipping point,” Lindzen remarks that “no one thinks anything terrible will happen in anything like the future they see.” Of course, the report’s 23 co-authors might beg to differ. If Lindzen mistakes twenty-three scientists for “no one,” what does this say about his statistical acumen?

Oh, yes: while it’s irrelevant to the climate debate, it’s nevertheless noteworthy that Dr. Lindzen continues to dispute the statistical validity of another important scientific consensus — the one linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 2, Day 15: Problems Of Scale, As Usual

The bigger the political system, the less competent it is to address the problem. The Albany Times-Union:

ALBANY — Seven “hundred-year floods” have hit the Catskills during the last 15 years, and lobsters have grown so scarce in Long Island Sound that lobstermen have given up trying to make a living there.

As a result, it’s time for the humans to start figuring out how to protect the trout, lobsters and countless other species being challenged by climate change.

That’s the problem state and federal environmental officials and scientists are grappling with in the middle of a winter that been virtually snowless in much of New York.

A group gathered at the state Department of Environmental Conservation headquarters Thursday to work on a plan for protecting plant and animal life in the decades to come.

While political pundits may still be debating global warming or the impact of greenhouse gases, a broad consensus of scientists have agreed the climate is changing.

Extinction is bad for the bottom line. Sent Feb 10:

It’s good news that state and local governments are taking action to mitigate the expected effects of climate change. But it is shocking that the federal government remains paralyzed by ideological squabbling in the face of what is arguably the greatest threat human civilization has yet faced. Did I say “squabbling?” Perhaps that’s the wrong word, since all the name-calling, vituperation, and misinformation are coming from one side of the political spectrum.

If Republicans and their financial backers were to consider the implications of climate research objectively, several things would happen. First, they’d stop denying the factuality of global climate chaos, and start working actively to slow it down and to cope with its impacts. Second, they would recognize that preserving the planetary systems on which our culture depends is as important for market capitalists as it is for radical “tree-huggers,” for a profitable economy requires environmental stability to flourish.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 1, Day 13: Bless My Homeland Forever

The Scotsman notes a new study on the impending loss of alpine flowers and plants:

A study, involving biologists from 13 countries, revealed that climate change was having a more serious impact on alpine vegetation than they had expected.

The first cross-Europe survey of changing mountain vegetation has showed that some could vanish within decades.

Michael Gottfried, of the Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments (Gloria) programme, said: “Many cold-loving species are literally running out of mountain. In some of the lower mountains in Europe, we could see alpine meadows disappearing and dwarf shrubs taking over within the next few decades.”

The Gloria team, led from Austria, analysed 867 vegetation samples from 60 different summits across Europe, including in the Cairngorms in Scotland.

They compared results from 2001 and 2008 and found strong evidence to suggest cold-loving plants were being pushed out by species that preferred warmer conditions.

Among species at threat in Europe could be the edelweiss, praised in the song of the same name in The Sound of Music. It is specially adapted to the high-life at altitudes of between 6,500ft to 9,500ft. Its snow white, star-shaped leaves are covered in woolly hairs to protect them from the cold.

Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow, bloom and grow forever.

Sent January 9. My daughter turned 7 years old today; we love to sing that song.

The news comes in from everywhere: climate change is having a significant impact on local and regional ecosystems. While diverse ecological systems are affected by the global greenhouse effect in different ways, there is one thing that all the reports have in common — one phrase that’s universally applicable, whether it’s describing the Arctic or the Amazon, a Senegalese forest or a Scottish meadow.

“More serious than expected.”

Listening to climate-change denialists, one could easily form the impression that because climatologists’ predictions are frequently inaccurate, there really isn’t that much to fret about. After all, if scientists are wrong so often, why worry? But the sleep-wrecking fact is that when the experts err, it’s virtually without exception by underestimating the damage done. The sudden introduction into the atmosphere of millions of years’ worth of buried carbon has triggered a cascade of consequences, all (you guessed it!) more serious than expected.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 1, Day 10: I, For One, Welcome Our New Blattarian Overlords

The Christian Science Monitor (which has never yet printed one of my letters, but a boy can dream, can’t he?) notes the work of a Dr. Mark Urban, who has some bad news for lovers of our Earthly flora and fauna:

As climate change progresses, the planet may lose more plant and animal species than predicted, a new modeling study suggests.

This is because current predictions overlook two important factors: the differences in how quickly species relocate and competition among species, according to the researchers, led by Mark Urban, an ecologist at the University of Connecticut.

Already evidence suggests that species have begun to migrate out of ranges made inhospitable by climate change and into newly hospitable territory.

“We have really sophisticated meteorological models for predicting climate change,” Urban said in a statement. “But in real life, animals move around, they compete, they parasitize each other and they eat each other. The majority of our predictions don’t include these important interactions.”

Ahhh, yes — but has he taken into consideration the effect of hybrid sharks?

Sent January 6:

It’s inevitable: the results of the University of Connecticut study will be used to reinforce the notion that since scientists’ work on planetary climate change is often affected by error, the problems of global warming have been rendered nugatory. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

As anyone who’s worked on a committee can confirm, consensus-driven documents are inherently more conservative than the views of the individual authors. Conversely, lone specialists or unidisciplinary teams may apply deep levels of insight to their research while neglecting contributing factors that lie outside their areas of expertise. Both problems are common in published work on climate change, and lend fuel to a “don’t worry, be happy” interpretation that fixates on the existence of errors without noting the simple fact that almost without exception, climate scientists have erred by being too timid. As Dr. Urban’s study confirms, the problem is worse than we thought.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 1, Day 8: There Is Grandeur In This View Of Life

The Columbus, IN Republic prints an article from the Hartford Courier on evolutionary processes triggered by climate change:

HARTFORD, Conn. — Numerous species already have enough to contend with as climate changes drive them out of their natural habitats; a new study shows that they also have to compete with each other in outrunning those changes.

The University of Connecticut study, to be published Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, suggests that the effects of climate change on wildlife are a good deal more complicated than previously thought.

Mark Urban, an assistant professor of ecology and environmental biology who led the new research, said many studies conducted on climate change and its potential impact on wildlife feature complex meteorological models to predict changes in climate.

What they don’t feature, he said, are equally complex models of how wildlife will react to those climate changes. Real-world factors — the different rates at which animals migrate, how they prey on each other and how they get in each other’s way — need to be included for a more accurate picture.

Killing two bird-brains with one stone, eh? Sent January 4:

Darwin-deniers are overwhelmingly likely to be climate-change deniers, and vice-versa; both groups can expect significant learning experiences during the coming century, as global warming pushes countless animal species out of their accustomed ecological niches and into intense evolutionary competition with one another.

However, both groups share the habit of ignoring evidence and embracing dogma, so it’s anyone’s guess how long their entrenched ideological positions will hold out in the face of rapid extinctions, extreme weather events, unexpected crossbreeds (like the new species of hybrid shark recently found off the coast of Australia), droughts, floods, and all the other epiphenomena of a runaway greenhouse effect.

Yes, biological evolution makes some people uncomfortable; yes, the notion that a century spent pumping carbon dioxide into Earth’s atmosphere might eventually have some negative effects is disturbing. But “uncomfortable” and “disturbing” won’t even begin to describe the future that awaits us should we continue on our carbon-burning, fact-phobic path.

Warren Senders

Year 2, Month 11, Day 21: Listen Up, All You Swine!

The Washington Post reports on yet another study, this one addressing a much earlier climate change event that effectively wiped the Earthly slate pretty clean — about 252 million years ago last Thursday.


WASHINGTON — During the world’s biggest mass extinction, Earth seemed pretty close to a description of hell — fiery, smoky and explosive — created by massive volcanic eruptions, according to research dug up in China.

In geologic terms, it was surprisingly quick, and it may provide a scary lesson about climate change for our future, authors of the new study say. It was the third of five extinctions in world history, occurring even before dinosaurs roamed.

This extinction killed off more than three-quarters of life on the planet in an event scientists have called the Great Dying. The Chinese dig sites provide new dates and details of the event, which occurred at the end of the Permian Era. It happened 252 million years ago and may have lasted less than 100,000 years, far shorter than scientists had thought, according to the study published Thursday in the journal Science.

I managed to create a nice metaphor. Enjoy it while you can. Sent November 17:

One of the arguments most commonly hurled against those of us who are justifiably concerned about life in a post-greenhouse-effect future is that, after all, “Climate change has happened previously in Earth’s history.”

Indeed. But such rapid climatic transformations are traumatic, to put it mildly. Just because climate change has happened before is no reason to welcome it back; last time, it appears to have extinguished the overwhelming majority of life on the planet.

A related argument is that climate change “…happens all the time.” As with many denialist shibboleths, a tiny kernel of logic is thickly coated with misleading rhetorical nacre. By analogy, the fact that death is universal among living things is no justification for genocide.

The scientific evidence is overwhelming: human beings are causing climate change. If our species is to avoid what biologists coyly term an “evolutionary bottleneck,” we need to change our ways without delay.

Warren Senders

Year 2, Month 4, Day 2: By The Time This Gets Posted, They May All Be Dead.

The M.S. Oliva, a Malta-registered freighter, has run aground and broken up on a tiny island in the South Atlantic. Nightingale Island just happens to be the home of forty percent of the world’s remaining wild Rockhopper Penguins. Not for long, apparently. At least 20,000 of these birds are now oil-soaked, looking forward to a merciful extinction.

And that’s not even the best part:

Conservation groups said the wreck could pose a different ecological threat to the chain as rats could have come ashore from the vessel, which was carrying 66,000 tons of soybeans from Brazil to Singapore. Several islands in the archipelago are rodent-free, and a rat infestation could potentially do more harm to bird life than any oiling, experts said.

Soybeans. I have no available profanity left.

Sent March 23:

It is a dreadful irony. Looking closely at the photograph of the crippled freighter, one can see the giant letters overlooking the deck: “Safety First.” Indeed. Twenty-two years after the Exxon Valdez, we’ve learned remarkably little; it takes a special kind of talent to run a vessel aground on a place as small as Nightingale Island. The Oliva’s breakup is devastating to the Rockhopper Penguins whose home is now surrounded by a toxic slick; the combination of oil-soaked feathers and the likely introduction of rats to the island may prove a tipping point for these delightful birds. What can we learn from the Valdez, the Oliva, the Deepwater Horizon and thousands of other petro-disasters? Simply this: the heavily-touted “cheapness” of fossil fuels is illusory. How much will cleanup cost? What’s the dollar value of a single penguin? Of an entire species? Of humanity’s future on a clean and healthy planet?

Warren Senders

Month 7, Day 5: Tiny Little Glimmers. Just Tiny Little Glimmers.

The striking thing isn’t that a famous scientist thinks humanity is likely to go extinct within a century. The striking thing is that many other scientists agree with him.

Dear Senators Kerry and Reid –

The continued forward motion of climate legislation is heartening to those of us who are concerned about the Earth’s future. It is sickening to watch the obstructionist tactics of the opposition party, and those Democrats who, placing narrow interests above that of the nation as a whole, continue to support “business as usual” (BAU for short).

Because it is daily more evident that BAU is not going to work any longer. The Australian biologist Frank Fenner states baldly that continued population growth and unchecked consumption (key elements of BAU, needless to say) are going to bring humanity to extinction within the century — and other scientists nod grimly and say things like, “While there’s a glimmer of hope, it’s worth working to solve the problem. We have the scientific knowledge to do it but we don’t have the political will.”

We need to recognize the nature of the crisis and educate one another, and we have to do it in a hurry.

Which is why I’m writing, begging you: don’t capitulate any more.

Don’t capitulate to the oil interests.
Don’t capitulate to the coal interests.
Don’t capitulate to the natural gas interests.
Don’t capitulate to the financial interests.
Don’t capitulate to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Don’t capitulate to the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page.
Don’t capitulate to the Dominionist Christians who anxiously await armageddon as promised in the Book of Revelations.
Don’t capitulate to Lindsey Graham’s political exigencies.
Don’t capitulate to Glenn Beck’s conspiracy theories.
Don’t capitulate to President Obama’s accomodationist bipartisan instincts.

Don’t capitulate. Make the bill stronger. We need a price on carbon. We need to make the cost of carbon reflect its true cost to our planet and ourselves. How much will it cost to clean up the mess we’ve made? Trillions of dollars, at minimum — and the longer we go on with Business As Usual, the more costly and inconvenient it’s going to be. Those trillions need to be added to the price of carbon, as soon as possible.

We have fooled ourselves that fossil fuels are cheap. They are anything but — and the sooner our economic thinking changes to reflect the true cost of oil and coal, the more likely it is we can avoid the fate Dr. Fenner has predicted.

Yours Sincerely,

Warren Senders